Dita De Boni 's Opinion

Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni: Still looking for the magic pill

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Even chocolate isn't safe from those who believe goodness comes in a capsule.

Illustration / Anna Crichton
Illustration / Anna Crichton

''Case closed: Multivitamins should not be used," bellowed one of the cantankerous columnists at Forbes magazine.

Larry Husten synthesised three large-scale studies that all seemed to indicate "once and for all" that the alternative medicine industry's dubious claims had been debunked.

The first study, conducted over many years, reviewed available studies and also undertook testing of (usually older) men and women. It concluded that in normal adults, taking vitamins would not significantly decrease most people's risk of getting either cardiovascular disease or cancer (although it could not rule out a benefit from Vitamin D).

The second study tracked 6000 doctors over the age of 65 for 12 years, examining brain functions and skills, and found no difference between those who took a daily multivitamin and those who did not.

A third study, which controversially found the often-disparaged practice of chelation therapy (ridding the body of heavy metals to treat conditions such as autism) may have some benefit, found multivitamins had no discernible effect on heart disease.

These are large-scale trials done by reputable scientists. They may not slow an industry worth more than US$11 billion ($12.7 billion) in America, or deter the one in two Americans who take vitamins and minerals (let alone the rest of the global population). But these damning studies and the thundering editorials they inspired give sceptics more fuel for their attacks on the sector's often over-the-top claims.

Despite this apparent knockout blow, conventional medical science keeps trying to prove the efficacy or otherwise of isolated vitamins and minerals, unshackled from their original natural source. Some of these have made it into the general shopping basket: even if we don't pop multivitamins like we do M&Ms, we might drop by the health shop for folic acid when we are pregnant, iron tablets when we are tired, and St John's Wort when we feel strung out - all on a doctor's recommendation.

I myself have relatives who swear on their lives that they feel much better thanks to glucosamine supplements, "women's" multivitamins and even that ZB favourite, the magnetic underlay, despite being otherwise sensible souls.

Some scoff, but science continues to take notice. Boston scientists are undertaking a study to see if the nutrients in everybody's favourite "superfood" - dark chocolate - can be taken in capsule form to help reduce the chances of heart attacks and strokes. A second part of the study will take a crack at multivitamins, this time to test whether they lower cancer risk in the general population.

The researchers warn that trying to steal a march on science and hoovering up chocolate bars in a vain attempt to circumvent cancer is unlikely to work. But whether the results are conclusive or not, one thing we do know is that the Mars company - maker of Snickers and Mars bars - should be a winner either way. The company is one of the funders of the study, with the US National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, and has already patented a way of extracting the magic ingredient, flavanols, from the cocoa bean so it can be sold in capsule form. It already does so but this study may give the trade further legitimacy.

With luck, the flavanol capsule might even help the company undo some of the damage it has done to the world's arteries over decades of successful commerce.

- NZ Herald

Dita De Boni

Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni is a columnist, commentator and TV producer/journalist. She first wrote columns for the NZ Herald in 1995, moving to daily business news in 1999 for four years, and then to TVNZ in Business, News and Current Affairs. After tiring of the parenting/blogging beat for the Herald Online she moved back to her first love, business (with a politics chaser), writing a column for Friday Business since 2012.

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